FEMA should learn from past mistakes

Photo by female.gov
Megan Wade

While Texas and Florida contend with the damage caused by the record-breaking rains brought by hurricane Harvey, and the flooding and wind damage of hurricane Irma, the opposite side of the country is quite literally on fire.

Dry conditions and extreme heat has led to widespread wildfires in Oregon, Montana and Idaho where fires have burned tens of thousands of acres. To make matters more difficult for the residents of these smoldering towns and farms, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) initially rejected Montana’s request for assistance in July.

The personal and financial costs of these fires are especially felt by Montana, where dozens of homes have been destroyed and a firefighter’s life has been lost. The Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation alone estimates it has spent between $5 million and $10 million fighting wildfires so far this year. The smoke from these fires could be seen here in Omaha in the form of a hazy sky Sept. 4.

This is not the first time the federal government has failed to respond to a natural disaster.
As an emergency management major, I have discussed the failure of governmental agency responses to Hurricane Katrina in almost all of my classes. There were many aspects of response and recovery that was not handled correctly, some being: supply failures, indecision, failure to listen and enforce warnings, but the most important by far was the lack of communication.

The Frontline interview, “The Storm,” explains that the first responders waiting out the storm in New Orleans were not aware that the levy holding back the sea wall had broken until hours after it had happened. When the levy broke, it flooded most of the areas holding the city’s supplies. One of the major supplies was buses. Without the use of the city buses, officials were not able to transport people out of flood areas, or transport supplies in. Emergency supplies had been gathered, but not nearly enough for the disaster that ended up happening. There was no line of communication between rescue officials and the residents. People could not call for help, and rescue teams had no way to call for backup when they found a large group of people in need of help.

Not only was there a communication breakdown within the city, but also at the national level. The FEMA director at the time of Hurricane Katrina, Michael Brown, claimed that FEMA did not know the extent of the damage to New Orleans until days after it had happened. The governor failed to request sufficient aid, so when aid did arrive from other state governments and NGO’s there was no command structure in place to control the flow of the aid.

Even though there were a lot of mishaps throughout the entire response process to Hurricane Katrina, the lack of response from FEMA is what created the most confusion. Other federal agencies and NGO’s were looking to them to take charge, when what actually happened was mass confusion and panic. The death total for Hurricane Katrina was over 1,800 individuals, with the recent hurricanes reaching nowhere near that many casualties.
Even though Katrina was a massive disaster in American history, it has taught many valuable lessons in the response and recovery process and has aided in training for future natural disasters.

FEMA should remember those past mistakes as it operates in a world that no doubt will be riddled with many more natural disasters to come.